Preparing Your Smarthome for Outages

As the fall and winter seasons approach I’m reminded that it is prime season for outages in my area. Powerlines, cable lines, and fiber lines are all above ground next to the forest of trees in my area. Every year we’ve had a power and/or Internet outages, some lasting for days.

As your smarthome relies more and more on Internet, cloud services, and power what should you do to prepare for the inevitable? Here is some advice I’ve learned over the years.

When Smarthome Disaster strikes

Know what type of outages you should prepare for

When most people think of outages they think of power outages. But you could also have an outage from your Internet service provider (ISP), or one of your cloud providers could have an outage. How will these affect your smarthome?

In order to know what outages to prepare for, think about the ones you’ve had recently. Did your power go out last year? For how long and how many times? Does your ISP frequently have outages? Has your cloud smarthome hub service gone down?

You can do some testing. Power outages probably don’t need much testing. I’m pretty sure you know what happens to your house when the power goes out. But how about when the Internet is out?

What happens when you pull the plug?

Run a test for this by simply unplugging your modem from your router or ISP. What still works in your house and what doesn’t? Make note of what doesn’t work right, and what doesn’t have a workaround. This will help you plan later.

For reference, I disconnected my Internet service in my own smarthome and noted the following:

  • No TV. I cut the cord so that is completely dependent on Internet streaming. However, I could still use Emby to stream videos I have on my local network.
  • No voice control of anything from Alexa or Google Assistant. These require cloud connections over the Internet.
  • I could not control my GoSund smart plugs or my Geeni (Tuya) smart lights.
  • I could still remotely control my TP-Link, LIFX, RF, Shelly, Zigbee, and Z-wave devices using Home Assistant. These all have local API connections and don’t need the cloud.
  • My Ecobee smart thermostats could not be controlled via the app or Home Assistant. However, I could still use the controls on Ecobee units to control my HVAC. And they remain on the programmed schedule.
  • My home alarm still works because it has a built-in cellular backup. My surveillance cameras still work because they record to local disks using Zoneminder. However, there wouldn’t be any way to view the cameras remotely.
  • None of my remote messaging works. My smarthome sends me messages for different events (doors left open, doors unlocked, key jobs running or failed, network break-in attempts, etc.). None of this will happen without an Internet connection.
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The big things for me are no voice control, no TV, and no remote monitoring of the house. Everything else is okay. You should consider how your home works when there is no Internet connection and how important those functions are to you.

Dealing with Internet outages

You’ve done your Internet outage testing and determined what works and what doesn’t. Are there things you can’t live without? You have a couple of options depending on your situation:

  • Replace controls that require an Internet connection to work with ones that don’t. I favor buying devices that have local APIs. Using a hub that doesn’t require an Internet connection is a must. It’s one of the reasons I love Home Assistant.
  • Have a backup (failover) Internet connection. You could have two wired services, but when one goes down the other might too if the outage was caused by a downed tree line. This is why I decided to implement cellular failover Internet.

Dealing with cloud service outages

What cloud services do you rely on? How will their products work if their cloud service goes down? Is there local control? Make this part of your decision when buying devices.

These days it is hard to avoid cloud services. For important items, like a thermostat, make sure they have some way of working without a cloud connection. Remember, your cloud service can go down even if your Internet is working. This happened to me recently with Ecobee. You can’t fix these outages, you can only mitigate them. Luckily, most important systems with physicals controls have ways to work without their cloud service.

Dealing with power outages

Loss of power is the outage most of us are pretty familiar with. All of us have probably experienced some type of outage caused by a storm, accident, or even scheduled brownouts. What should you do to protect and prepare your smarthome?

Install a whole-home surge protector

It’s not just the outage you have to worry about. Sometimes its surges of power, especially when power returns after an outage. I have lost very important equipment this way in the past. It’s not always feasible to connect everything to a surge protector, and some devices (like HVAC systems) are wired directly into the electrical panel.

A whole-home surge protector can be exactly what you need. They are relatively inexpensive, although you may want to have an electrician install it for you. I have this one, and so far, so good!

Preparing for short power outages

The key to preparing for short power outages is to connect key electronics to an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS). What are the systems that are a pain to bring back online? For me, bringing up my VM host and the VMs (file servers, Docker host, Home Assistant, etc.) can sometimes be a pain, so I really don’t like for this computer to shut down just because of a short power outage. A properly sized UPS keeps it running for a while to cover short power blips.

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I tend to use CyberPower UPSs because they have been reliable for me, and Linux has built-in drivers for them. For my two servers and key networking equipment, I use the CyberPower CP1500AVRLCD unit. It’s a bit expensive but has an informative display, plenty of runtime, is line-interactive, and has easily replaceable batteries. UPS batteries typically last 2-5 years.

Preparing for long power outages

With long power outages (more than a few minutes) you really have only a few options for your smarthome. You can just grin and bear it and deal with not having any power. Or you can get a temporary power source, such as a generator or whole-home UPS.

There are a few different types of generators you can install. On the more inexpensive side, you can get a portable generator that you can power a few key systems, like your main server, router, WiFi, HVAC, and refrigerator. Keep in mind that without a long runtime UPS you will probably have to restart your systems to run them on a portable generator. It takes time to get the generator out, start it up, and plug everything in.

You could also opt for a standby generator for your home that powers all the circuits you want. With a standby generator, there is no set up involved when the power goes out. The transfer switch/generator will detect when power is out and then start up and provide power to your circuits. This process is usually less than a minute, but not instantaneous. If you don’t want any interruption to your key systems, you still need to connect them to a UPS. Standby generators can be very costly to purchase and install, but it may be worth it to you.

Another option is a whole home UPS. This setup is where your home is powered by a battery, and the battery is charged by a utility. These are commonly used in houses powered by solar panels. When you use a whole home UPS there is no downtime when the power goes off. Your house keeps running until the battery doesn’t have enough capacity. You need large batteries, like the Tesla Powerwall, for this kind of setup. While a generator can run for days, even weeks, you are not likely to have enough battery capacity for more than a day or two without any power.

Don’t forget to have a recovery plan

Written plan for smarthome outages

What happens when the power comes back? Internet? Do things need to be rebooted or reconnected? Make sure you have a plan for how to get things back up and running quickly when the outage is over. The more complicated your smarthome, the more detailed this plan may need to be.

You may need to consider the order in which you turn on a computer or services. For most people, the first thing to get up and running is your router and the rest of your network. You might need to have your file server running before your media server, or your MQTT broker running before your smarthome hub.

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Once you get used to the convenience of your smarthome, you’ll want to make sure it is up and running as quickly as possible. A plan will help you.

Final Thoughts

I’ve opted to spend quite a bit of time and resources to make sure my smart home keeps working in an outage. I’ve taken the following steps:

When the power goes out for a short burst my UPS keeps the Internet, and all my smarthome related servers running without a hitch. If power goes out for long periods, my UPS keeps the power going to critical systems long enough for the generator to kick in. I also have implemented notifications to let me know when my power goes out and when my generator kicks in.

When CenturyLink has an outage, my router fails over to cellular Internet. Most of my smarthome systems are controlled locally so cloud outages really only affect parts of the system.

It took me a while (and quite a few dollars) to get to this point. Before I got the generator, I used to rely heavily on in-home UPSs for everything and I had a specific plan for getting things back up and running.

You may not need to go as far as I did, but I hope I’ve given you pointers and some things to think about.

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Preparing Your Smarthome for Outages

by HomeTechHacker time to read: 7 min